This ambitious project is motivated by philosophy and art, rather than
practical concerns. The following essay attempts to articulate the
philosophy. The casual reader may feel free to skip straight to the
list of modules.
I've always enjoyed synthetic music. I spent my childhood transfixed by the bombast of Jean Michelle Jarre and Philip Glass, the pop euphoria of Erasure, the somnolent soundscapes of Brian Eno and Tangerine Dream. I was obsessed with the Nickelodeon, an elaborate machine from the early 20th century which incorporated a small orchestra's worth of instruments, powered by compressed air and programmed by paper tape. The marriage of melody and rhythm with science and technology unites my cerebral hemispheres into a resonant whole that seems to transcend its components.
As a teenager my musical taste became prejudiced toward the raw, spontaneous realism of DIY punk music. The undeniable contributions of Kraftwerk and W. Carlos helped supplant this tired ideology with a maturing appreciation for all musical forms, but the thirst for violent, energetic live performance remained. Since then I have been engaged in a furious search for electronic music artists who can deliver a live show on par with my ideals, frequently meeting with disappointment.
I had high hopes for Atari Teenage Riot, but their extremist attitude was undermined by the flat, stale, canned drumbeats. Watching kid606 open for Suicide was a hideous experience, as the kid somehow produced a scattershot blather of sonic ideas from his lone Powerbook without any evidence of passion or involvement. For all I could tell he was simply playing MP3s while checking his email onstage, conceptually audacious but not worth paying for. Suicide themselves were electric, forging a powerful emotional connection with the audience despite their advancing years, primitive '80s keyboards, and simple but inaccessible songs. The contrast between the two acts was overwhelming.
The techno DJ movement aspired to shift the spotlight away from the performer's ego, onto the audience's musical experience. This ideal has all but collapsed, as people travel between cities and pay exorbitant ticket prices on the basis of superstar DJ personalities. The mix might be original, but the disconnect between the audience and the producers of the source records remains. Wide availability of computerized music production software has fostered a generation of musicians accustomed to a sterile, abstract creative enviroment, without a clue of how to express their musical ideas for the observer's pleasure. Experimental music venues are haunted by pale-faced spectres, shrinking from view behind folding tables as they diddle their laptops. Fischerspooner deliberately abandons any pretense of musical performance, acting out elaborate costumed fantasies on stage while their CD album plays over the PA. Orbital's live CDs are indistinguishable from their studio albums. None of this compels me to leave the house on a Saturday night. Predigested music loses nothing in translation when downloaded at home.
An active person should not be overly burdened by the shortcomings of others. If you want a job done right, you've got to do it yourself. So, I intend to build an electronic percussion instrument that I can stand to listen to. Basing it heavily on analog electronics builds in a relationship with the physical world that makes every sound a unique product of the time and place it was created. Apart from basic sequencing, no programming capability is desired. The ultimate goal is the production of complex, original sound, easily shaped in real time by the whims of the operator.
Clangora Hi-Hat Simulator
Thomas Henry's Clangora hi-hat synth project, which was published in the
November 2003 issue of Nuts & Volts.
The Clangora is practically a complete analog synthesizer, sans voltage
control or temperature compensation of the VCOs; features include dual
envelope generators, dual VCOs with FM mixer, frequency sweep and
filtered pseudorandom digital noise source. The noise source and other
sections are specifically engineered to evoke the character of brass
percussion, but while the Clangora can certainly provide a convincing
hi-hat impersonation it's also capable of a wide range of unique sounds
and timbres. The circuit board was made using Mr. Henry's original artwork,
and the chassis and faceplace are my own design. I also added front-panel
pushbutton triggers for tuning without an external trigger source.
ADV-Bass Drum Simulator
Another Thomas Henry design, which was at one time available in schematic
form on his late Midwest Analog website (and possibly published in Nuts &
Volts at some point). Project kits were offered from the site, but I opted
to create my own board layout based on the schematic. I've constructed
several boards and two complete modules so far; like the Clangora, the
modules have custom faceplates and pushbutton triggers. The sound is fat
and fun to work with, and versatile enough that I wanted several modules
for concurrent use.
This very simple module, based on an LM565 phase-locked loop, is a clone of
a guitar pedal I made many years ago from a schematic found in a library book.
The title of the book has vanished from my memory, but I suspect it was Craig
Anderton's Electronic Projects for Musicians. When I began the modular synth
project I wanted to add the balanced modulator function and considered using
the innards of the pedal, but decided it had too much sentimental value and
that building a new module from scratch would be more fun. This module differs
from the others in that it has both banana jacks for synth use and 1/4" jacks
for use as a guitar effect.
What, no sound samples?
I am attempting to resolve issues of personal liability that might arise from exposing innocent third parties to the phatness of this synth. I will record samples after composing a suitably worded disclaimer.
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